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Old antisemitic tropes found new life in Phoenix

On Oct. 29, a video emerged of an anti-vaxxer ranting at a local school board meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, where she used a public comment period to espouse hateful conspiracies about Jews, whom she accused of controlling the pharmaceutical industry.

Her accusations dripped with many of the classic conspiratorial tropes that have dogged Jews for millennia.

Whenever there’s a global crisis — economic, environmental, wars, terrorism, a pandemic — and the cause or source of the suffering isn’t clear, it is often Jews who are blamed as the “hidden hand” behind those events. The Jewish people have long been a convenient scapegoat with which to explain the unexplainable or rationalize societal fears.

 

During the spread of the global pandemic, we’ve seen a dramatic resurgence of conspiracy theories alleging that Jews and other marginalized communities are allegedly spreading the coronavirus, a classic antisemitic trope. Jews were also, for example, blamed for spreading the Black Plague throughout Medieval Europe. The use of such canards led to antisemitic violence during the pogroms in Russia, blood libels in Poland, the Dreyfus Affair in France and the lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta.

It’s still surprising to see and hear modern versions of these libels.

 

“There is one race that owns all the pharmaceutical companies,” the woman in Phoenix said, “and these vaccines aren’t safe, they aren’t effective, and they aren’t free. You know that you’re paying for it through the increase in gas prices, the increase in food prices — you’re paying for this, and it’s being taken from your money and being given to these pharmaceutical companies.”

Then came the kicker: “And if you want to bring race into this: It’s the Jews.” Let’s take a moment to unpack this.

In her windup, the woman mentioned “the deep state, the cabal, the swamp, the elite” — trafficking in the antisemitic notion that Jews are an elite group who work in concert to impose their will on others.

Then there’s the accusation that “one race owns all the pharmaceutical companies.” As ludicrous and outrageous the accusation sounds, we’ve heard this one before too. It’s the age-old canard of Jewish control: the idea that Jews control Congress, the banks, the media and Hollywood, and use these powerful institutions to impose their will on society.

Finally, there’s the idea of profiting from “unsafe” vaccines. Who created these vaccines, in our speaker’s mind? You guessed it: The Jews. Why? Because they’re greedy. It’s the historical trope about “Jews and money,” which has its origins in ancient Christianity, all over again.

 

By this warped logic, the anti-vaxxer in Arizona is saying, Jews are not just profiting from the vaccines, but they are an evil cabal who is using the pharmaceutical industry both to control the economy and sicken your children. Poisonous conspiracy theories and hateful myths, such as the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” have stood the test of time. In the 20th and 21st century, Jews have been blamed for large scale events, such as the 9/11 attacks and global warming, accused of harvesting organs, or, more bizarrely, of controlling the weather or using “space lasers” to start forest fires.

In other words, the coronavirus blame game is just the latest variation on a theme.

The anti-vaxxer put two-and-two together, and now it all “makes sense.”

This is how antisemitic conspiracies are perpetuated and continue to grow.

What’s most shocking about this episode, to me, is not that our speaker gave voice to these blatantly anti-Jewish tropes in a public setting, but that not one single person at the meeting had the courage to stand up and denounce her words as hateful, hurtful and untrue.

Her remarks were instead greeted by mostly silence from the school board members who were listening — and a smattering of applause from the audience. No member of the school board responded to her. No one in the audience called her out. No one said a word.

Public comments are an important part of local democracy. It enables anyone to bring their concerns before elected officials. As immortalized as one of the “four freedoms” by the painter Normal Rockwell, freedom of public speech is one of the most cherished traditions of American democracy.

Another cherished and important tradition of our democracy is the right to respond to free speech that hurts or offends with more speech. While this tactic may fall short on social media, when ideas are amplified algorithmically or instantly broadcast to billions, it remains a crucial tenet of our society.

In fact, this idea helped to catalyze the creation of ADL in 1913. Our founders believed passionately in the notion that when good people are willing to speak out against hate speech, we can prevent antisemitism from spreading.

Next week, ADL is bringing together leaders, activists, experts from across the country to discuss how these conspiracies continue to spread, and how we need to work as a society to address them head on.

It’s an urgent moment to remind people of the vital importance of words, which have not only the power to spread hate, but also the power to pull us back from the brink.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League).

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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